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Learning about my audience

One of the first rules of writing educational materials is to know who you are writing for. Know who your learners are and what they need, and then figure out the best way to give it to them. As a writer, I have always had a clear understanding of my audience – until now.

One of my current projects is to write a textbook for adult basic education students, primarily in British Columbia (though the book will be available elsewhere). My contract is with Northwest Community College, based in Terrace, BC, and with campuses in the surrounding towns. A large percentage of the student population is First Nations. My book is for students who are working at a Grade 10 level.

The curriculum guidelines from the BC Ministry of Education are pretty straightforward: reading strategies, paragraph structure, and other standard skills. What I had no idea about, though – the missing piece of the puzzle – was the students themselves. I made a tentative outline for the book, then it was time for a research trip. I flew to Terrace.

Terrace is a 17-hour drive north of Vancouver, or a 90-minute flight over mountains and fjords. I visited campuses in Prince Rupert, Hazelton, and Smithers, as well as Terrace itself. It’s all incredibly beautiful – I took photos of the Pacific Ocean, and of the sun shining on the snow-capped mountains and reflecting off the Skeena River. If it wasn’t for the Tim Hortons and PetroCanada stations dotted along the highway that connects the communities, I could almost have been in another country.

But this is a troubled region. Many of NWCC’s students are from the Nisga’a and Gitxsan Nations, and many come from backgrounds that one teacher described as “chaotic.” They have known poverty, overcrowding, physical and sexual abuse, addiction, single parenthood… Some have undiagnosed learning disabilities, others are dealing with fetal alcohol syndrome – which, I learned, doesn’t go away. While the college is welcoming, I heard about racism in the town, including cases of police brutality.

Driving on First Nations land, such as the small community of Moricetown, I saw the dilapidated houses where these students might have grown up. Boarded-up windows, trash lying around, dogs running wild… I really wanted to drive up to the Nass Valley area north of Terrace; this is where many of the Nisga’a students come from and was inaccessible by land until quite recently. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to make the trip, and I wasn’t sure about taking my rented Mazda on the road up there. I wanted a truck and an extra day. Next time…

What happened to these students in high school, I asked a teacher. Why didn’t they get the support they needed back then? I learned about overcrowding in classrooms and how easily a student with problems might fall through the cracks. This applied to non-First Nations students, too. They had been let down by the school system and were trying to make up for it now.

Some students at the college have a clear goal. Some need Grade 10 to get into trades courses or the military. Others want to work towards their Grade 12 diploma and take it from there. Some, however, spend years in college upgrading, often taking the same level several times. As one teacher told me, when you’ve experienced abuse, learning just shuts down. You get to a point where you can’t take in any more information. I also got the sense that for some of these students, going to college provides a community for them, a sense of belonging.

My conversations with teachers were enlightening, but what really made an impact on me was the students themselves, particularly the women. The resilience they showed was incredible. I spoke to Tina*, a single mom of five, who was working to improve her English and math skills to get into NWCC’s aesthetics program. Tina was deaf and was happy that this term she had been provided with a sign language interpreter.

Another future aesthetics student was Lacey, a vivacious and obviously bright young woman. She told me how she had left the region and spent a few years moving from place to place in Canada. What had brought her home? Drug addiction, and the knowledge that she would only be able to deal with it in her own community where help was available.

I briefly met Josie when she stopped by her teacher’s office to ask for permission to bring her baby son to class next week, as she didn’t have child care and didn’t want to miss school (her other child was in Grade 1). Of course, her teacher was more than happy to welcome the baby to his class. Josie’s son, just four months old, looked healthy and well dressed. I wondered what his future would hold.

I spoke with Karen, a Cree woman who had moved to the region and married into the Gitxsan Nation; her husband was undergoing treatment for cancer, and she spoke about her loneliness and lack of friends in town. She was determined, though. Now in her fifties, she was planning to work towards a BA in social work. She showed me some of her writing, and I was impressed by her clarity and ease of expression.

Canada’s First Nations people have a long history of abuse by the Canadian government, though there are signs of change. The government has issued an official apology for the residential school system, which devastated First Nations communities for much of the 20th century; various land claims settlements are being hammered out around the country; and there are obvious signs of money being spent (Hazelton has a lovely new high school). But you can’t just throw money at a problem and hope it goes away, and it will take years for the situation to improve.

I flew out of Terrace with a little more insight into an aspect of Canadian society that I had known little about, a vague notion of doing more work in the area of adult basic education, and a determination to write the best possible book for these students.

Meanwhile, women like Tina, Lacey, Josie, and Karen keep plugging away with their education, trying to make a better life for themselves, their children, and their communities. With their determination, I’m sure they can do it.

*Names have been changed

Ksan village, Hazelton, BC

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